This past week a deadly stabbing attack occurred in London carried out by 28-year-old Usman Khan, a released prisoner who had been convicted in 2012 on terrorism offenses. Khan had been imprisoned on a 16-year sentence for his part in an al-Qaeda-inspired plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange and other major London sites, including the U.S. Embassy. He was automatically released last year, without his case ever being reviewed by a parole board, after serving only seven of his 16 years.
Now, one year after his release, Khan, who was required to attend a program to help rehabilitate prisoners, went on a rampage. He stabbed several people, killing two, and wounding more, while also brandishing what turned out to be a fake suicide vest. Ironically, he carried out his attack during a rehabilitation program event. That he had the vest prepared ahead of time makes it clear it was not a spontaneous outburst, or sudden loss of control, but a premeditated attack.
It appears that having served UK prison time for a terrorism conviction and being released, even conditionally with an electronic tag, as Khan was, is no guarantee of public safety. In France, a similar attack occurred in Saint-Etienne du Rouvrayin, in 2016, when two ISIS adherents forced a Catholic priest, Father Hamel, to his knees during morning prayer and slit his throat in the gruesome ISIS beheading style.
One of the perpetrators, 19-year-old Adel Kermiche, had already been arrested twice for trying to get into Syria, but had also been conditionally released from the prison sentence he received after his second attempt to go to ISIS. On his first try, Kermiche was stopped in transit in Germany, returned home and put on parole. But that didn’t stop him. He tried again, two months later, and was sent home where he was imprisoned for 10 months. Kermiche was released and wearing an electronic tag when he killed the priest. Kermiche, similar to Khan, also had a fake explosive belt and other fake explosives with him.
In the case of Kermiche, prosecutors had protested his release, but all the same he was released to his family home, needed to wear an electronic tag and had to check in daily with police. At the time of his attack, Kermiche was being followed by three French intelligence services including some agents that had infiltrated his Telegram chain where he had announced his plans to attack. French intelligence has issued five warning notes about Kermiche – yet no one acted in time to stop his lethal attack.
Both of these cases, and the many upcoming scheduled releases in the UK and France, alongside the flood of ISIS returnees across Europe that may occur as Turkey and events in Syria pressure Europeans to take back their ISIS prisoners, raise important questions about what to do with terrorist convicts while in prison and how to protect the public upon their release back into society.
Khan’s UK release occurred in an automatic fashion and “on license,” meaning he had to conform to prearranged conditions to remain free, including taking part in the very program where he staged his attack. Automatic releases halfway through a prison term are one way of dealing with the overcrowding, understaffing, disorder, violence and drugs that UK prisons are currently struggling with, but it appears that an across-the-board automatic, mid-sentence release policy is not working in the public’s best interest. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson weighed in on the practice after Khan’s attack, pointing out, “I’ve said for a long time now that I think the practice of automatic early release, where we cut a sentence in half and let really serious and violent offenders out early, simply isn’t working.”
Johnson also stated, “It is very important that we get out of that habit and that we enforce the appropriate sentences for dangerous criminals, especially for terrorists, that I think the public will want to see.” Likewise, Junior Interior Minister Brandon Lewis told the BBC that this incident will likely push the British police to review conditions placed on released convicts.
In nearby France, Sebastian Pietrasanta, a former MP and author of a report on the subject, explained how the French state has done away with such measures. “In France, automatic remission of sentences for people tried for terrorism has been abolished,” he said. “It is up to the courts to decide on remissions. But there is no more possibility of automaticity.”
Pietrasanta goes on to explain that those who are convicted on terrorism charges are assessed for radicalization upon their arrival at prison and if assessed as highly radicalized are isolated, while others take part in prison-wide programs and naturally disengage. Prior to their release, the French prison intelligence service looks at the prisoner’s history, affiliations within prison and dangerousness, and prepares an exit plan in which the Directorate of Internal Intelligence usually begins to follow the individual. According to Pietrasanta, the goal is less about deradicalization than disengagement, “less to change ideas than to suppress the use of violence, and succeed in removing the idea of acting out. [The] idea is to recreate the collective bond. But this accompaniment also goes through the religious aspect with chaplains. All this fits into a multi-disciplinary logic.”
In regard to the risks associated with the release of terrorism convicts, and the policy of granting early prison releases, in particular, the counterextremist group Hope Not Hate pointed out in February that al-Muhajiroun, a group that they label as “Britain’s most proliﬁc and dangerous extremist group,” was “stirring back into life” after two years of relative silence while key members were in prison. The CEO of Hope Not Hate stated: “The release of some of their more prominent activists, albeit on strict controls [emphasis added], appears to be galvanising some younger supporters into re-establishing street stalls and other public activities.”
Even without early releases, in June 2018 the Guardian warned of a surge in the number of convicted terrorists soon to be released from UK prisons noting that more than 40 percent of the sentences for terrorism offences handed down over a 10-year period would have been served by the end of 2018, pointing to more than 80 of the 193 terms issued for terrorism offences between 2007 and 2016 to run out by the end of the year. The Guardian also noted that the number of individuals released following terrorism charges could be much higher as prisoners are routinely eligible for release halfway through their sentence.
In nearby France, similar issues are at stake where the reintegration of convicted terrorists has been clearly identified as a concern. In France, 22 of 196 convicted terrorists will be released by the end of the year and more than half of these will be released by 2020. By 2022, 75 percent of convicted terrorists will have served their sentences, as reported by French newspaper l’Opinion. And neither of these estimates, from either country, concerns the possible sudden influx of ISIS prisoners who are being forcibly returned by Turkey or who may be repatriated as a result of the chaotic situation in Syria – only some who may be successfully prosecuted and imprisoned, with the rest going free.
Thus, whether or not terrorism convicts receive automatic early release, or are held for their entire sentence, the issues at stake concern whether the laws are strong enough for solid prosecutions with lengthy enough sentencing to deter terrorist minds, and once in prison whether there are effective ongoing assessments and working rehabilitation programs taking place so that, when prisoners are released, the public can be assured that these prisoners won’t simply return to their former dangerous activities and constitute a serious threat to society.
In regard to adequately addressing the UK’s rehabilitation of terrorism convicts while in prison, Ian Acheson, an ex-UK prison governor, stated that the country’s Prison and Probation Service “has been asleep.” He added that “Islamist groups offer a very seductive message and if the prison doesn’t have an alternative, because it can’t offer a full regime and rehabilitation programmes, it’s a clown show.”
“There is no capacity for staff to challenge ideologies – we have got ungoverned spaces and that’s where extremism thrives,” Acheson added.
That, however, has been at the center of many debates about whether or not challenging terrorism ideologies in prison rehabilitation programs is important at all, or if imprisonment alone is enough to disengage, if not deradicalize, terrorism convicts. While many argue that time in prison constitutes a separation from the group alongside plenty of time for reflection, thereby causing disengagement to a certain extent, that is not always the case, as prisons are fertile recruiting and training grounds for extremist prisoners as well. Experience in France, UK and elsewhere teaches the important lesson that when terrorism convicts are grouped together they just as often recruit, incite and plot inside prisons, just as well as outside them. A major danger there is of recruiting “clean skins,” that is those with petty criminal records and no previous terrorism history, and also inciting those about to be released to carry out lethal attacks.
In regard to the positive or negative effect of prison terms, Dr. Michael Kenney, a University of Pittsburgh professor who spent time embedded with the British al-Muhajiroun, stated that “rather than turning the most dedicated activists away from al-Muhajiroun, arrest, incarceration and administrative controls often strengthens their commitment to the cause.” He also predicted that some recently released extremists will restart their activities when their license conditions expire. Indeed, when I interviewed British Jermaine Grant in 2018, who was imprisoned on terrorism charges in Kenya, he noted that al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorists view prison time as expected, and that all of these groups prepare their cadres to view time in prison as a badge of honor.
While some argue that deradicalization is difficult to achieve, it’s important to consider if ideological commitment is something that needs to be addressed in prison programs prior to release and if simply putting individuals in prison is enough and is also actually disengaging them from terrorism. Perhaps the best way to answer it is to look at what terrorist groups themselves see as important and also to look at who prisoners are affiliating with during their time in prison: Are they disengaged from their group, or deeply engaged inside the prisons with other terrorist cadres?
ISIS, which managed to recruit 40,000 foreign fighters from 130 different countries, did not care about the criminal backgrounds, ethnicities or Islamic creed of those who joined the group as long as they could mold them as they wished. In that regard, ISIS believed that ideological indoctrination was so important that once its Caliphate was declared all new male recruits were forced to attend mandatory shariah training. In these classes they were taught to see the world and Islam in the way that ISIS did. Likewise, they were taught that anyone who didn’t follow the harsh ISIS interpretation of Islam should be excommunicated and killed. New members of ISIS attended a minimum of two weeks of ideological training and men were expected to teach their women and children the same at home. Likewise, ISIS carefully enforced its shariah code upon everyone who lived under its rule. Ideology was paramount to the group, and was used to justify its actions, and they didn’t neglect it in any sector of life.
Many of the 217 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners that I have interviewed in the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism’s (ICSVE) Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project have said that the very emotional nature of ISIS shariah training and the charisma and Islamic knowledge of the ISIS trainers they studied under led them to temporarily suspend all judgment and totally commit themselves to the group, in some cases so deeply that some even volunteered for suicide missions. The power of ideology and charismatic preachers was therefore for ISIS very important in bonding new recruits to the group, to committing them to carrying out violence and to guiding their thoughts and behaviors going forward. Islamic rewards and punishments were used as levers along the way to instill this ideology. ISIS ideology, therefore, should not be underestimated in terms of treatment when an ISIS, or other terrorist cadre, lands in prison.
Simple disengagement, if it is even occurring inside prison, may not be enough. Ideological commitment often needs to be carefully addressed as well by highly skilled individuals – psychologists and prison scholars with understanding of the virulent ideologies that have been indoctrinated into these prisoners.
As mentioned previously, groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, al Shabaab, etc., know how to motivate people as they bring them into the ideology of the group. For instance, those with serious post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other mental disorders, not to mention serious life problems, or deep feelings of guilt, anxiety and shame over having “sinned,” are often convinced of an easy out from their problems by being talked into taking part in suicide missions repackaged as Islamic “martyrdom” missions. In this manner, the group is able to assemble a highly lethal fighting force that can strike terror into even much more militarily superior enemies. Using ideological indoctrination, the individual is convinced that he will escape all his pain for instant entry into Paradise, not to mention all the rewards conferred upon an Islamic martyr.
Over the years of interviewing over 600 terrorists, I have spoken to failed suicide bombers, as well as conducted thought experiments with regular college students, wherein those who considered carrying out a suicide attack (even in a thought experiment) could be moved into a state of euphoria that is likely an endorphin-mediated response to contemplating taking one’s own life. This euphoria, to the true believer, can then get interpreted as a sort of mystical confirmation that one is about to enter Paradise by going forward with the suicide attack.
Similarly, terrorist groups reassure “sinners” that carrying out a “martyrdom” mission will guarantee them forgiveness for their sins and instant entry to Paradise. A person with a serious problem may not so easily relinquish this belief just because he lands in prison. Indeed, his time in prison, especially if he falls into the company of like-minded persons, may simply reinforce his commitment to the group and its ideology.
I can say with confidence that there is not a simple reason for joining and bonding to a terrorist group. A complex interplay comes into play between the group, its ideology, social support for terrorism and individual vulnerabilities and motivations. No one joins a terrorist group for no reason. It’s rarely purely ideological, but ideology as well as the group interactions with the individual ultimately bonds the person to the group, helps them jump over normal barriers to violence and convinces them that carrying out terrorist violence is good for them. Likewise, once bonded to the group it’s not an easy task to unbond them.
Good in-prison treatment of terrorism convicts needs to get at the underlying causes and address them in a way that is more rewarding to the individual than the terrorist group, its ideology and the social support it has offered up to that point.
That is not to say that a highly radicalized person won’t deradicalize spontaneously in prison or otherwise. I have seen spontaneous deradicalization occurring among the 217 ISIS cadres I have interviewed in recent years. Many ISIS members became deeply disillusioned of ISIS and began to drop their ideology and commitment to the group even before they were detained or prosecuted. Others, given time to think things over in prison, also began to deradicalize without any treatment program offered, and at times prisoners talking among themselves have deradicalized one another.
However, there are many who will need significant time and separation from the group – separation that may or may not be happening inside prisons – as well as psychological and religious help to move away from violent extremist thinking that has been drummed into them, some from a very young age. For instance, a 13-year-old ISIS defector ICSVE researchers spoke to in Turkey told about being saved by his parents from carrying out a suicide attack for ISIS by them sending him away into Turkey. However, he said it took him over a year living away from ISIS before he was able to overcome their thinking.
Similarly, at ICSVE we have documented numerous cases in which ISIS returnees and defectors have flip-flopped and gone back to, or wished to return to, the group.
When one looks at the evidence, it’s clear that if we want to keep our societies safe expecting simple terrorist disengagement occurring via imprisonment is not enough. We have to get at the thinking and emotional resonance that has occurred in the terrorist convict to bond him both to violence and to the violent group in order to truly detach him from both the group and its thinking. Good prison rehabilitation should do both: deradicalize and disengage, and then also redirect the individual to better meet the underlying needs that drove him or her into a terrorist group in the first place. This redirection should occur in a manner that serves both the individual and society and it needs to occur within the time that the person will actually serve in prison so the individual is not released as a danger to society.
Without such measures put in place, we will continue to see terrorists continuing to seed themselves inside prisons and we will also seem them retaining, and even hardening, their terrorist beliefs inside prisons, so that those released from terrorism convictions will continue to be at risk to carry out attacks, just as we have just witnessed with Usman Khan’s murder rampage occurring this last week in London.